Q&A: DHS CIO Wants ‘Constant Foraging’ for Commercial Tech

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More than a year after opening its Silicon Valley office, the Homeland Security Department is figuring out what a free flow of talent and technology would really mean.

Earlier this week, we published a Q&A with the Homeland Security Department’s chief procurement officer, Soraya Correa, about buying technology from entrepreneurial hubs such as the Silicon Valley, Austin and Boston areas.

For this post, Nextgov spoke with DHS Chief Information Officer Luke McCormack about his vision for the department’s relationship with the private sector’s so-called innovation economy. DHS opened an office in the Silicon Valley area more than a year ago, though, Correa said last week, calling 1.5 employees an office is “a real overstatement.”

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

NG: What’s DHS’ end goal with its Silicon Valley office?

LM: Our overall goal is to continue to build out this framework. If there is a partnership between the Chief Technologist’s Office, and the Chief Procurement Office, where we’re constantly foraging this technology that’s out there in their community … everything from post-Petri dish.

“Petri dish” is more of a [Science and Technology Office] domain. We can pick it up from there -- stage 1, stage 2 [development ], all the way up to a realized product, where we’re giving them input, we’re prototyping different types of activities … and looking for ways to use this.

We’ll have sandbox-type activities. We will also work with the research labs and commission research … typically, we would do that partnership with [S&T] and, of course, we’re always partnering with the Chief Procurement Office because we have to make sure we’re procuring all these things properly.

NG: How does the government decide what development to do in-house -- maybe in internal innovation labs -- and what to contract out?

LM: A lot of what Science and Technology is doing is really getting access to the research labs, to commission work on behalf of DHS.

The early-stage innovation and development is really using those products and putting them together in such a way that we would either build a business application or put together a system that would then be used by some sort of operational manager.

For example, what’s happening with one of the Broad Agency Announcements -- we’re looking for information on wearable technology for canines. We’re going to buy that development, and coordinate that activity with some companies that build those types of capabilities or prototyping them or designing those. But then, we would take that at some early stage, and then bring it in house and then try to operationalize it.

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NG: What are your biggest roadblocks?

LM: I don’t know if there’s any roadblock. It’s more that the pace that information or that activity is happening in the development cycle is very fast, and the challenge is building structures, environments, configurations so that we can take advantage of the pace that’s out there.

We know these early startup, very primitive type of research capability that’s going on is happening in 60-90 day cycles, and so our opportunity there is to … get access to that information in the cycle in which they operate it.

NG: Soraya mentioned that you’re trying have a bilateral conversation with startups instead of lecturing them about what you need. How formal is the process by which you are adjusting to the Silicon Valley culture?

LM: It’s a mix. We have hired several people from the private sector that have worked there their entire careers. We have a digital service team stood up here in DHS, all of them from the private sector. Obviously, we’re getting a lot of input from that, we get input [by] reaching out to the community … a lot of what we were doing on the roadshow [to Austin and Boston] was just asking about how we wanted to interact with the community and then they … gave us some suggestions. We learned a lot of stuff there, and we’ll course correct.

We’re not going to sit up here and write some manual and say, “‘OK, here’s the manual, a year later, and here’s how we’re going to operate.”... We’re going to be more flexible with the ability to adjust as we learn, and, quite frankly, as the industry moves. This is a very rapidly changing industry, and we want to make sure we change with it.